Next week, the Georgetown Scholars Program launches its fifth annual #GSProud campaign, an initiative dedicated to celebrating first-generation and low-income students on the Hilltop and building allyship on campus.
Too often on campuses of elite, predominantly white institutions, low-income and first-generation college students are burdened with educating those around them about their life realities. At Georgetown, they are doubly taxed by serving as leading voices for substantive reform and culture shifting.
We write as a first-generation Hoya, now an assistant director at GSP, and an ally who serves as executive director of the Center for Social Justice. We convened a 35-member advisory board for access and affordability, dedicated to removing the burden on first-generation students to advocate for institutional change. Our work culminated in a report that offers steps toward a whole institution transformation rooted in the belief that every individual has a vital role in uplifting not only first-generation and low-income students, but all Hoyas on the Hilltop.
Through that process and from our diverse Georgetown roles, we see the power of a community in diversity — one where students, faculty, staff and administrators converge to work toward a more inclusive, more equitable Georgetown.
Despite first-generation students serving as changemakers on our campuses, national research shows that first-generation students do not experience a strong sense of belonging on college campuses. A sense of belonging increases positive outcomes in student success and retention, but the data indicates that first-generation students tend to graduate at significantly lower rates than students who come from families with college degrees. For low-income first-generation college students, the graduation rate is even lower, at 11 percent.
The #GSProud campaign recognizes the crucial contributions — both visible and invisible — that our first-generation and low-income Hoyas have made through their presence on the Hilltop. They enrich classroom dialogues, lend their energies as student leaders and uplift those around them through acts of service: standing in support with Washington, D.C. immigrant families through D.C. Schools Project, walking a friend to a first-time CAPS appointment and, quite commonly, working multiple jobs to send money home to family.
To foster a sense of belonging for our first-generation students, let’s establish that by choosing to be a member of the Georgetown community, each one of us has a responsibility to animate a Georgetown that focuses on the formation of all Hoyas. Traditional centers of institutionalized first-generation support such as GSP, the Community Scholars Program and the First Generation Faculty and Staff Initiative have become “one-stop shops” for students to feel seen and heard. The calls of first-generation students for advocacy should be undertaken up by every department and individual. We can only live out the Jesuit value of community in diversity with every member’s commitment.
Second, our institution admits students without regard to their financial circumstances and is committed to meeting the demonstrated financial need of a student’s cost of attendance. That is, applicants are not judged by their ability to easily pay — or not — Georgetown’s tuition. Yet we all know that there are hidden and overt costs to college living, whether that’s owning a winter coat or having a MetroCard to pay for transportation to and from an internship. Transformation begins with every campus unit and student organization auditing its policies for barriers that prevent first-generation students from engaging fully with Georgetown.
Third, let’s recognize that allyship is a lifelong practice of building relationships that are grounded in trust, consistency and accountability. We start from the undeniable truth that low-income and first-generation college students are not a “problem.” This assertion is a radical and countercultural act on a campus with an overzealous fixation on fixing problems. The backgrounds of our first-generation and low-income students are not “problems” to be solved or fixed. Our Hoyas deserve our attention and solidarity.
#GSProud week provides an opportunity for all members of our community to commit to the collective movement of a whole institution approach to equity and to student flourishing. We must move towards a Georgetown community that doesn’t simply “include” first-generation and low-income students, but rather dynamically and dramatically transforms by virtue and value of their incomparable presence and engagement — by their belonging.
Andria Wisler is the Executive Director of the Center for Social Justice. Jason Low is a 2017 graduate of Georgetown College and Assistant Director of GSP.